Training for perilous work

Mariners learn safety skills for one of the deadliest jobs in America — commercial fishing.

Fishing can be highly profitable, but as this CDC map shows, many fishermen have perished plying the trade. — Center for Disease Control

Last week mariners gathered in Menemsha for a series of workshops geared toward enhanced safety while engaged in what is statistically among the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. — commercial fishing. A Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis of 2016 fatalities per 100,000 workers found job-related mortality of fishermen second only to loggers.

The dangers of fishing are far from a new trend. “During 1992–2008, an annual average of 58 reported [fishing] deaths occurred (128 deaths per 100,000 workers), compared with an average of 5,894 deaths (four per 100,000 workers) among all U.S. workers,” the Centers for Disease Control noted in a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

These dangers are front and center on the Fishing Partnership website, the nonprofit that hosted the recent workshops.

“Fishermen are 37 times more likely to die on the job than policemen. And, on top of that, New England’s waters are the most dangerous in the country,” the website states.

Despite such ominous data, people are motivated to brave the Atlantic, especially in Massachusetts, because it’s highly lucrative. And nowhere in the county does fishing equal more money than right next door in New Bedford, where 107 million pounds of seafood worth $327 million was landed in 2016, according to NOAA statistics. The lion’s share of that seafood profit, 77 percent, comes from landing sea scallops. It’s not a fleeting bounty. New Bedford has chalked up profits above all other American ports for 17 straight years.

To share in those fortunes, whether cruising out from behind the Fairhaven–New Bedford Hurricane Barrier or from inside the Menemsha jetties, safety for fishermen is paramount.

Ed Dennehey, a retired Coastie who commanded the 270-foot Famous-class cutter Campbell, among other assignments, told The Times the survival suit is an essential piece of safety gear no fisherman should be without. Also known as an immersion suit, the survival suit can mean the difference between drowning or hypothermia death and living.

The buoyant neoprene suits take some getting used to to don, and can’t be put on partway to be effective. “You need to get into the suit completely in order to have the proper thermal protection,” Dennehey said. And to do that, he said, a mariner must be out on deck, not below decks or in a wheelhouse where close quarters make it difficult to get the suit on. Also, inside spaces on a vessel can become traps, he said, and fishermen can pay with their lives if they linger inside their boat or return inside when in peril.

Survival suits come in three basic sizes, he noted: Intermediate, Universal, and Jumbo. The suits run about $275.

Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust executive director Shelley Edmundson was among the trainees who took a plunge in Menemsha last week while in a survival suit. “The survival suits were so buoyant (and claustrophobic)! I don’t think I even went under the water when we jumped off the dock,” she said. “I think the risks of fishing become even clearer in the sea safety training course. When you realize the number of catastrophes they have to be prepared for, it’s really sobering. That’s why this course is so important — it makes you take the time to think about what you don’t want to.”

In addition to survival suit training, mariners also learned life raft deployment, use of three types of flares — daytime smoke, handheld, and nocturnal parachute — fire-extinguishing techniques, EPIRB [emergency position-indicating radio beacon] use, and other lessons. Additionally, some mariners underwent a training certification so they can conduct monthly safety drills.

It had been two years since the the Fishing Partnership came on-Island to conduct a training, Dennehy said. The beauty of the Vineyard offered a pleasant contrast to the gravity of his work.

“Just the drive from Vineyard Haven to Menemsha — it’s really picturesque,” he said.